Canton Council on Aging to hold debate on physician-assisted suicide

Seniors in the Canton area will hear both sides of the argument over physician-assisted suicide at an upcoming debate on a Nov. 6 ballot initiative that would allow a person near the end of a terminal illness to obtain a lethal prescription drug.

The Oct. 18 event at the Canton Senior Center was arranged after the ballot measure, known as Question 2, triggered a great deal of informal discussion among elders, said Diane Tynan, director of the local Council on Aging. A number of other forums on the issue are scheduled in other communities south of Boston.

“People sound concerned — they are asking what would it mean for them, or their spouse, if it goes through,” Tynan said.

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The measure, if passed, would allow a person with six months or less to live to obtain a prescription drug to take his or her own life. Also known as the “Death with Dignity” initiative, it includes safeguards, such as a 15-day waiting period between first and second requests made by the patient to his or her doctor.

A seniors’ bulletin in Canton describes the 1 p.m. seminar as a way for people to become informed and decide well on a ballot question that “will shape our future.” It also urges seniors to get out and vote, ending: “Please don’t let others make this choice for you.”

“I just want people to have all of the facts. I’m not trying to sway people one way or the other,” said Tynan, adding that she herself is undecided. “It is important for people to know both sides of the question. There is a lot of misinformation. People of all ages get confused.”

A representative from Dignity 2012, a statewide coalition of citizens supporting the act, will present alongside a speaker from the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide, she said.

Some religious organizations and disability rights’ activists have condemned the ballot measure, and the Massachusetts Medical Society joined the opposition last month. In Boston and Cambridge, several medical and legal academics and civil liberties advocates have backed the referendum, which has also drawn support from some caregivers, including the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. A Suffolk University poll released Sept. 17 found nearly 65 percent of voters support Question 2.

On Oct. 15, St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Braintree is inviting people of all denominations to a 7:15 p.m. discussion with Deacon James Greer of the Archdiocese of Boston about the end-of-life beliefs of the Catholic Church, which opposes Question 2. On Oct. 19, the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Scituate is holding a 7 p.m. “Hot Topics” discussion that will begin with a documentary about the impact of a similar 1994 Oregon law. The event, cosponsored by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and for adults, will include Scituate clergy and hospice workers for a discussion of both sides of the issue.

In Norwood, parishioners at St. Catherine of Siena Parish are receiving guidance from the Very Rev. Myles Sheehan, a priest and physician who has specialized in geriatrics and worked extensively in palliative care.

Many older patients with serious illness have asked the medically trained priest to take their life in the past, Sheehan said, describing such pleas as “the beginning of the conversation.”

“More often than not, I felt like what they were seeking was a reaffirmation of their value and life,” said Sheehan, a Marshfield native who recently held a seminar on Question 2 at churches in Norwood and Boston.

Sheehan said it would be a travesty if, in that vulnerable moment when a patient wishes for death, physicians in Massachusetts begin responding with “Here’s a prescription.”

“I think many people who are in favor of this measure are afraid of medical care,” he said, adding that enhanced palliative care and social support is key. “People are afraid of being a burden on their families or dying on a machine or dying alone, but none of this needs to be true.”

Sheehan suggested that Question 2, if passed, might blunt advances in care. “It will alter how we look at people who are old and dying,” he said.

Yet other caregivers, such as Gretchen Robinson, 68, a retired nurse and former hospice chaplain in Attleboro, said people deserve the right to choose their time of death near the end of a terminal illness.

“There is a lot of emotion behind this issue,” said Robinson, who recently sparked debate in an online forum when she expressed support for Question 2.

In an interview, Robinson said she was influenced early in life by her grandmother’s experience working as a nursing aide at a former state hospital near Walpole.

“People would grab her hand and ask, ‘Would you do something to end my suffering?’ I grew up with this as a core part of my upbringing. I knew my grandmother felt helpless because she couldn’t do anything to help them, and it was hard on her,” she said.

When she began working with dying patients, Robinson was surprised by how many also asked her, “Why can’t I end my life?” she said. She remembers one patient told her, “You wouldn’t put a dog through this.”

“People are really scared about the last stages of dying, when you are helpless and you cannot do it yourself. I think we have an individual right to take control of our life,” she said, adding the final decision should not be left to the government or doctors or even the family.

In Oregon, terminally ill patients have legal access to this step and many people obtain but never use a lethal prescription, Robinson said. People often choose to live once the option to die on their own terms has returned a sense of control and dignity to them, she said.

State Representative Louis Kafka, a Stoughton Democrat who has pushed a “death with dignity” bill to establish similar prescription access to lethal drugs, said this ballot question is about people with a terminal diagnosis wanting the right to make a choice. His own efforts were inspired by Stoughton resident Al Lipkind, who advocated for such legislation for years before dying of stomach cancer in 2010.

“It would not be an easy choice. But people want to be able to consider it. And I don’t disagree with that,” said Kafka, who plans to vote yes on Question 2.

On the ballot, Question 2 is labeled “Prescribing Medication to End Life” and summarized by the state attorney general for voters, who are told a “yes” vote would “enact the proposed law allowing a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that person’s life.” A “no” vote would “make no change in existing laws.”